Bobby Pope

Dealing with ACL injuries has improved through the years

When I was a senior in high school At Robert E. Lee in Thomaston, we lost our best football player, Gaines Wilson, to a knee injury in our season-opening game against the hated Griffin Eagles.

Wilson had been the starting fullback on the 1961 team that made it to the Class AAA championship where we lost 34-13 to Valdosta. In that game, he returned a kickoff for 90 yards in the third quarter to get us to within one at 14-13. Depth got us during the final 16 minutes as the Wildcats scored 20 unanswered points to win going away.

Wilson, a preseason all-state selection as a senior, was a phenomenal player who signed a football scholarship with Georgia but never fully recovered from the knee injury, and as a result, his only action for the Bulldogs was playing briefly in the annual Scottish Rite Freshman game against Georgia Tech. He was originally diagnosed with a cartilage tear and underwent surgery while still in high school.

After enrolling at Georgia, he was sent to a young Dr. James Andrews, who discovered Wilson had suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear, but he never had surgery to repair the injury. Andrews is considered one of the most renowned orthopedic surgeons in his profession for knee, elbow and ankle injuries.

If medicine back then was what it is today and had Wilson been initially diagnosed with the ACL tear, I am positive he would have been a major contributor for the Bulldogs. While “ACL” might have meant something to doctors back in the day, to the layman, they were just letters in the alphabet.

According to local orthopedist, Dr. Frank Kelly back in the 1960s and 1970s (before arthroscopic surgery came into vogue) orthopedic surgeons simply did not know what to do with a torn ACL. The thinking at the time was that the main injury was to the meniscus (cartilage). If at the time of (open) surgery, the ACL was found to be torn, it was simply cut out. Little did the surgeon of that era realize that the main injury was the ACL. Often times the cartilage injury was minor.

ACL tears have become almost commonplace today, especially in football, soccer basketball and gymnastics. The ACL can be injured in several ways, including changing direction rapidly, stopping suddenly, slowing down while running, landing from a jump incorrectly or direct contact or collision, such as a football tackle. The tears are at least four times more common in females because of the differences in anatomy, ligament laxity and muscular strength.

It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 300,000 ACL injuries each year, resulting in more than 100,000 surgeries. The cruciate ligaments control the back and forth motion of the knee, and when a tear occurs, the ACL can not be repaired; it must be reconstructed using a tendon from another part of the body or from a cadaver. Rehabilitation, which is vital in the recovery process, usually takes between eight to 12 months, and normally after surgery the knee has the potential to be as good as new, especially in world class athletes.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson played eight months after an ACL reconstruction and had his best season ever rushing for more than 2,000 yards in 2012. Andrews performed the surgery on Peterson.

Wesley Duke, who played basketball at Mercer between 1999 and 2005 and one season in the NFL with the Denver Broncos in 2005 had four ACL injuries. His first came as a senior in high school while playing football, and he had two more at Mercer. His final one came while with the Broncos, and it ended his athletic career.

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